Winter hit hard that year, getting so cold that patches of water would freeze, leaving icy traps for the unwary. Collin, Quinn, and Gaben set more broken wrists and legs from falls than they'd done in the previous two years combined.
Today, Gaben had already been called out to attend a patient with a fall, and Collin had just finished removing the cast from a patient's wrist, when a boy from the far side of the village ran into the clinic. He stood just inside the door, huffing and puffing. "Need Quinn Stone," he managed, after Collin got him a glass of water. "His brother's in a bad way."
"Burke? What happened?"
"He stayed out drunk, and the dragons got him."
"And he's still alive?"
"Cursing like crazy. Made it under the porch after the first bites."
"Damn that Hansell," Tara said from behind him. "Damn him to hell."
"Go get Quinn, Tara. I'll get our supplies." He grabbed their emergency satchel and while in the back room called Jamel under his breath. "Tell Kayden I need her and the wingdeer."
Quinn ran into the room. "Where is he? Where's Burke?"
"Back home," the boy said. "He needs you bad, doc."
Tara hovered behind them with Shanika. "Tara," Collin said as they left. "Let Gaben know. He'll need to stay here."
Quinn's relatives lived on the far east side of the village, and when they arrived a crowd of people gathered on the porch. Quinn ignored their questions, and they made it into the house. His mother rushed to him. "You've got to save him, Quinn. You've got to."
Quinn's sister's husband, Wendle, shook his head. "Ain't no saving him," he muttered. To Collin he appeared white as if he'd already vomited once today. That wasn't a good sign.
"Where is he?" Quinn demanded.
His mother pointed toward a doorway. Quinn stalked toward the room. Collin motioned Kayden to stay in the living room for now, and he followed Quinn. The room was dark, and Quinn first tore the heavy covering from the window.
Burke cursed as the light hit his only exposed eye. He lay on a bed in the corner emitting the putrid odor of vomit, urine, and rotting flesh. A crude, bloody bandage wrapped the left side of his face, and a blanket covered his body. "Quinn! That you? Let's see if you're really a doctor, you girlbaby."
"Always trying to win friends, aren't you, Burke," Collin said, noticing that Quinn seemed frozen. It was always harder to work on someone you knew well, especially if the relationship was not as it should be. He leaned over and removed the bandage from Burke's head, revealing that the left side of his face was gone.
Burke cursed again. "Get me the whiskey, you bastard. Don't you have a little compassion."
"Looks like your friends have already given you some. No more whiskey. It'll keep the blood from clotting." Collin removed the blanket and kept his face as straight as he could. Only a miracle had kept Burke alive this long. His hip and left leg were gone, and his bowels spilled out of the gaping wound. Collin glanced at Quinn.
Quinn knew, he could see it on his face. But they couldn't do nothing.
Collin opened his bag. "Let me get you a pain killer. It's better than whiskey." He prepared the injection, and then recovered Burke. "You have a choice to make, Burke. We can put you under and attempt surgery, or we can make you comfortable while you say goodbye to your relatives and friends."
"That's it! Attempt surgery? You don't even think you can do it?"
"Your chances of coming out of surgery are pretty low."
"You just hate me. You've always hated me. You're just a girlbaby like Quinn." His words slurred together and were almost unintelligible. "You operate. If I die, it's all your fault, Quinn. Your fault."
Collin and Quinn moved the bed to the middle of the room and then informed Quinn's family of Burke's desire for an operation. He let Burke's mother and sister in to visit. His brother-in-law, Wendle, preferred to stay in the living room.
"Don't let them kill me, Ma. Tell Quinn he has to keep me alive."
"He'll save you," she reassured him.
Kayden joined them in Burke's room, and they started the operation. A half hour into it, Burke's heart stopped, and nothing they did would start it back up. When they finally gave up their efforts at reviving him, Collin saw the tears streaming down Quinn's face. He walked around the bed and held him, letting his tears soak into his shoulder. Kayden quietly put away their supplies, tears on her face also.
Then Collin readied the body for the family before giving them the news.
Quinn needed to be with his family over the next few days as they prepared for the burial. And then they all attended the funeral. Collin stayed near Quinn in the back of the small group of people, even though Collin knew he should be up front, he didn't bother to correct him.
After Burke was lowered into the ground, his relatives walked back toward the house. Quinn stood stiff, waiting for the others to pass him. But his mother stopped before him. "I told you not to come. You've never cared for him. I hope you get dragon bit, so your clumsy friend can torture you." She glared at both Collin and Quinn.
Collin placed his hand on Quinn's back and led him to Angie and Rae so they could fly home.
That night Collin was awakened an hour before dawn by a pounding on his bedroom door. "Yes?" He stepped out of bed and pulled on his trousers, praying that it wasn't another dragon victim.
Gaben opened his door. "Quinn's gone."
"He and Tara had a fight late last night. I couldn't help overhearing it. And she just came to me now telling me he never came back. He's not anywhere in the house or the barn."
Collin finished dressing. "Are you sure?"
"His jacket's missing and so is the red sword off the wall."
"We'll find him. Go search the barn again."
As soon as Gaben left the bedroom, Collin called for Jamel, hoping he was in range. "Jamel?"
"No, he is not. He's in the field behind his mother's house, yelling for the reptile dragons to get him."
"Oh, no. I've got to . . . ."
"I will not let him be eaten. He is safe."
Collin sagged against the wall. Of course, he could count on Jamel. "Why didn't you contact me?"
"I thought he needed to be alone, like when you would reptile-dragon bait. And the sword is dangerous. He appears unstable, and I did not wish you hurt."
"How long has he been out there?"
"Four hours, seventeen minutes, eighteen seconds."
"He's probably getting hypothermia."
"Collin, we have company."
"Just try it! Come and get me, you flying bastards. Come on!" Quinn shouted, waving the sword above his head at the night sky. The moons were starting to set, and still Burke's killer had not shown himself -- the coward. "Come on. Do you just attack the drunks? The children? Try eating me, you bastard. Let me ram this sword right up your throat." He waved the sword as he jumped around to scan the sky all around him.
"Come on!" he shouted, his voice rough and cracking from the constant yelling. His fingers were numb against the hilt of the sword. He jumped as he waved it to the sky again, pretending the chill hadn't penetrated his soul. Focusing on the sky let him forget Tara words, his mother's demands, and his sister's accusing looks.
Tara thought it was his fault, too. She'd come right out and said Burke might be alive if he'd taken Gaben instead of a Hansell worshipper like Alex. She was stupid. Any real doctor would see Alex was ten times the doctor Gaben was. Even Gaben knew it now. Tara was stupid, and she worshipped Gaben and his university degree. "Come and get me you damn bastard! Come on!"
She thought he was a girlbaby just like Burke did. She thought Gaben was a real man. He'd show her a real man. Then she'd be sorry. They'd see he wasn't afraid -- not even of death.
"Come on, you cowards, you...."
The coward was coming, flying low over the ground, a dark shadow, occasionally reflecting the scant moonlight in sharp bronze tints.
Quinn watched it speeding toward him, and his dry throat contracted. He tried to lift the sword again, but his arms felt like jelly. Then he could see its eyes and its gleaming white teeth. Quinn fell to the wet, cold grass and curled into a ball. He was dead. Fighting would just prolong the pain, just like when his father had gotten mad at him. There was no escape. There'd never been any escape. Except now he'd die, and they'd find his sword and know he'd come out here on purpose. He hadn't been afraid.
A raging cry cut through the air, and then the dragon landed on him, covering him completely, its weight crushing him. And it didn't move. Where were the teeth? Why was he still alive? Dragons didn't smother their victims first. But maybe he'd pass out before the real pain of the beating -- eating.
It was moving now. Lifting, sliding from him. "Are you all right?" came a rich voice. Something soft and fur laden touched his neck, like his precious wingdeer Rae. The sword was pulled from his fingers. "Hey, it's okay. You're safe now."
Quinn rolled to sit, placing his head down in his folded arms. He'd failed. Some other fool was braver than he was. The fool would get the credit for saving him. He felt all wet and sticky. Why couldn't he even die right?
The fool's horse or deer nuzzled him again. "It's victory," the voice said. "The dragon is dead. Your sword lies in its neck. You killed him."
Maybe he was dead. No one would give him credit like that except maybe Alex, and it wasn't Alex's voice. Quinn lifted his head and stared down a long snout filled with gleaming teeth to two large eyes. He clamped his eyes shut. I am not afraid. I am not afraid. "Come on, Coward. Eat me."
"I do not eat people," the voice said with a touch of disdain. "I am not a reptile-dragon." The last word was spit out with contempt.
Oh, no. It had happened. He'd finally lost touch with reality. He knew coming out here tonight would be considered 'losing touch', but there was a logical reason to come out here -- to prove he wasn't a girlbaby. There were no logical reasons to have conversations with a dragon head.
Quinn opened his eyes a crack. It was still there, so close he could lean over and kiss it, and it was alive, its huge eyes studying him. Yes. He'd lost touch with reality. Victims never spoke of having a conversation with the dragon before it tore off a limb. Of course, Quinn concluded, he didn't think he'd tell anyone either, if he survived.
"I am your friend."
Quinn opened his eyes the rest of the way and studied the situation. A light-blue dragon sat beside the corpse of a bronze dragon, which had no head. Instead a sword protruded from the end of the neck.
"You killed it?"
"You never planned to kill it, did you?"
Quinn scowled. This beast probably thought he was a coward. "I had my plan. You didn't have to mess it up."
"Your plan apparently didn't extend beyond tonight."
"Yes it did! They'd see I was brave. They'd see . . . ." Quinn shook his head. He was arguing with an imaginary dragon. He was obviously still alive, probably in Alex's operating room, giving all his plans away.
"Death is not a solution. Quinn, don't give up," the dragon said, just as Alex had once before. That's it. The light blue dragon really was Alex in his sick and fevered mind. He should tell him before he died. "Alex? Watch Shanika for me."
"You will watch Shanika. You're alive." Yes. Just like Alex. Giving the victim reasons to survive.
The horizon lightened, and the distant trees became distinct. "Alex. I love you. You're the best father."
The dragon's snout examined his head, but he was no longer afraid. This was all unreal. It wasn't happening. "My name is Jamel. I detect no bumps, cuts, or internal bleeding on your skull."
Quinn reached up to touch the dragon. It was a fantasy, after all. He might as well satisfy his curiosity. "Soft. Like a wingdeer." Quinn rose to his knees and then his feet. It was a fantasy, after all. "May I have a ride?"
"Perhaps a different night, Quinn. But now you need to stay here to claim victory. They are at the house and will be out here looking for you soon."
"Who are they?"
"Collin, Gaben, now joined by your brother-in-law, Wendle, and two other men, a Garth and Kilvin." Burke's drinking friends. He wasn't in the operating room yet. They were coming to carry his mangled body from the field. Except he didn't feel mangled. He felt surprisingly alive.
He saw the head of the bronze dragon lying on the ground behind the Jamel dragon. He crouched beside it and touched the snout. It felt different. Quinn twisted to look at Jamel, and almost fell backwards. The huge head was beside him now. "You're a mammal!"
"Yes. I am. I do not eat humans. I protect them."
"You didn't protect Burke."
"I was hunting in the mountains that night. I'm sorry. I did not realize this one was in Hope. I've been looking for him since."
"You just didn't care. Ma is right, you know. We just didn't care enough." He said 'we' because he knew the beast was a projection of his own mind, his own logical side. So he was safe telling himself about his guilt. "I didn't like him. Even before Pa died, he would hit me, and Pa would laugh, proud of him, hating me. I did hate him, and I let him die."
"You had no control over it," Jamel said reasonably. "Collin is the best doctor in the galaxy, and he was there. You couldn't have killed him if you wanted to. But I must go. They're coming." The creature bunched itself up.
It untensed, snaking its head to face him. "Yes?"
"I . . . You . . . You said I could ride another night."
"I must leave. Tell no one about me. Go to your barn at night to see me." Then he sprung up in a wind-rush of wings and lifted into the morning sky.
Quinn stared after him. The stress had been too much. He'd snapped. But now he felt better. The world was normal again -- until he looked down at the ground. The bronze beast still had a sword sticking out of its neck. Somehow it had been killed, and he hadn't. He looked up into the sky, but the Jamel dragon had disappeared -- had probably never been there at all.
"Quinn. Wow, Quinn."
He turned as Alex Collin ran up to him. Gaben, Wendle, Garth, and Kilvin were close behind him.
Alex thumped his back. "You got him. Wow!"
"I didn't . . . ." But Alex gave his head a slight shake while looking into his eyes, his signal not to tell the patient how severe their condition was yet. Somehow Alex knew he hadn't killed it.
"Look at this, Guys. Quinn slayed Burke's killer. He's a hero!"
Wendle's nose wrinkled. "Did you have to bathe in its blood?"
"Hey, killing dragons is a messy business," Alex said.
Garth grabbed the head. "I want this."
Quinn stood stiff, as Garth claimed the head and Kelvin examined the body. This wasn't real. But the people were acting right. Garth, Kelvin, and even Wendle would take the dragon away. It would be gone, and they'd claim the . . . the victory.
"No!" Alex almost roared. "The beast is Quinn's trophy. The whole thing."
"He doesn't care."
"Yeah. He don't care," Kelvin said, withdrawing the sword. "Nice. I could use this."
Alex lurched to Kelvin, grabbed the sword on the hilt above his hand, and twisted it away. "This is my sword, and I'm giving it to Quinn." He waved it toward Garth. "Set the head down. The whole dragon belongs to Quinn. He killed it.
Garth and Kelvin studied Collin and Gaben. Then Wendle coughed nervously. "Probably won't help to tick off all three of the town's doctors. Wife's a bit pregnant, and I ain't doing it alone."
"Why don't you go tell Quinn's mother that he avenged his brother's death?" Gaben said. "Let the town know he's a hero."
Quinn tried not to look at him. Gaben was defending him, calling him a hero -- Gaben, who thought Quinn was an uneducated country hick -- a hack of a doctor.
He glanced toward the sky and saw the wingdeer coming, three of them.
"Suppose those wingdeer are going to carry the thing home."
"Just the head and the hide," Alex agreed amicably. "Gaben, ever dissect a dragon? The most valuable part for Quinn is the hide, so we need to find a way to remove it with the least amount of tearing or flaws." Alex bent over to adjust the creature.
"Beautiful color," Gaben said, going to it. "Will you have a jacket made, Quinn?"
Quinn wasn't sure how to answer.
The wingdeer had landed and were trotting over to him, Tara sitting in front of Kayden. Kayden helped her down. And then Tara ran to Quinn, stopping before him, her hands hovering near his face. "Are you hurt? Oh, Quinn, all the blood."
"It's all dragon's blood, Tara," Alex said with a grin. "Quinn killed the dragon. He's a hero."
Tara stared at the beast stretched out on the ground a moment and then clutched Quinn. "You could have been killed! How could you do that to me?" And then she began crying.
Quinn couldn't move. Didn't she want him dead so she could marry Gaben? Didn't she hate him? But she was crying and holding him so tight as if she really didn't want him dead.
Alex touched his shoulder. "You're still in a bit of shock, aren't you, Son?" he said softly. "Gaben, take those strong backs with you and get Quinn some warm soup and something to wash up a bit with before he eats. We'll be out here for a few hours. Tara, you and Quinn come sit over here. Kayden will help me dehide the beast."
Quinn watched Gaben, Wendle, and Garth walk away, and then he let himself be seated in the grass. He felt himself shivering. Tara brought him a blanket from the supplies she and Kayden had brought, draping it around his shoulders. "Shouldn't he go back now?" she asked.
Kelvin picked up the dragon's head again. "Hey, Quinn. You really don't want this, do you?"
Quinn didn't speak.
"Of course he does. Go kill your own dragon if you can." Tara glared at Kelvin. "Alex, that's Quinn's, isn't it?"
Alex grabbed it and set it between Angie and Sam, who both did not seem as nervous as Quinn would have thought being so close to their enemy. "Yes, it's Quinn's. Do you think it might look nice mounted in the waiting room?"
Tara grinned. "Then everyone can see what a hero he is."
Quinn wanted to scream that he wasn't a hero, but Alex watched him with a slight smile, and then he gave him a wink.
"Kelvin, go tell everyone to come if they want to see a dragon before it's completely dismantled," Alex said.
Kelvin finally ran toward the village. Kayden and Alex went to the huge beast. Alex pulled something from his pocket and began working at the hide. Kayden had a large knife. Alex must also, but his back was to them.
By the time the people started showing up, the wings were off to one side, and Alex was peeling off the hide as if he'd done it a hundred times before.
It seemed overwhelming, the people who mingled around, praising him, touching the dragon's head or its wings or the hide. Even his mother and sister were there, gushing over him, saying how glad they were that he was safe, saying he was a hero and his father and Burke would be proud. It wasn't real.
Alex was giving away bones, giving anatomy lessons of the beast that Quinn barely heard. Tara had protested when he offered someone a hunk of meat, but Alex said the meat and bones were worthless. The true value was in the hide, the wing skin, and the head, and that's what they were keeping. He could keep the paws if he really wanted also. Tara wanted them.
The sun was high overhead when Alex had everything bundled and attached to the wingdeer. Quinn felt lightheaded, and was relieved when Alex mentioned he would ride with him, and Tara ride with Kayden.
Tara began to protest. She'd only flown a few times with Quinn, but now she wanted to. "He's sick," Alex said in a low voice. "Let's get him home and rested."
"And get all that blood off. It will come off, won't it?"
"Yes, it washes off," Alex assured her.
And then they flew home.